'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' Creator: How I Became a First-Time Director at Age 48 (Guest Column)
Aline Brosh McKenna shares what finally led to put her hand up for helming: “I started to realize that in order to be a director, I had to say I was one before I was one."
A few weeks ago, on a plane, a plastic cup of chardonnay and I tweeted the following:
“Nora Ephron was 51 when she directed her 1st movie. Nancy Meyers was 49. Their kids were grown. If you're a women [sic] who writes, acts, edits, ADs, etc and you're ready to direct, you're not too old. I was 47. Tell the people you work with your dream. Put your hand up. Men ask. Ask.”
I’ll tell you how that tweet came to be.
A couple of years after college, I ran into a high school boyfriend. He asked me what I was up to. I said I was a writer. He gave me the internationally recognized “Who the hell do you think you are?” face and said, “Wait, you tell people that?” Yes, I did, because I was and l am and forever will I be.
But declaring myself as a writer was relatively easy. I was bookish and got good grades and “seemed” like a writer. Declaring myself as a director was tough. Who the hell, indeed. Even after I had been in the business for years, I didn’t properly ask.
A few years ago, I signed with an agent and mentioned I’d like to direct. That was greeted with a rather large “Eh.” He said, “If you were going to do that, you would have done it by now. That’s been my experience. People who want to direct do it right away.”
I actually took this to heart for a second. Maybe I had waited too long. I’d had offers to direct but had never pursued them, and now I was a middle-aged lady with kids. I was no one’s visual image of a first-time director. And I thought, maybe I didn’t want it enough. Maybe I didn’t know enough technical stuff (I hear this from women over and over). Maybe I wouldn’t feel natural ordering people around (those of you who know me can laugh now).
Then I looked around. At the women who were leading directors. And the first two who popped to mind were Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron. They didn’t direct “right away.” They had illustrious careers, made fabulous movies, raised families and then became directors. I imagine no one made any kind of face at them. I’ve met them both. I wouldn’t have advised it.
And I started to realize that in order to be a director, I would have to say I was one before I was. Unlike writing, legitimately done alone in sweats with a spoonful of Nutella in your hand, directing requires people and money. So by definition, you’re gonna say you are one for a very long time, probably years, before you actually are. And that’s hard. That takes nerve and ego and confidence.
I’ve noticed that people who are not young men with baseball caps/cargo shorts, especially ones who didn’t go to film school, sometimes struggle with this. I’ve seen a lot of people, especially women, build expertise for years and years, writing or acting or editing or assistant directing, waiting for the right moment to be anointed. Just as I had. The way it works, though, is you can’t be anointed if you don’t ask.
My moment to ask came after I became a showrunner. Became a boss. Had a crew. And finally, at the end of the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, at the age of 48 (not 47, me and the chardonnay did the math wrong in the tweet — I also spelled “woman” “women”) I gave myself a pep talk, went ahead and asked myself, and hired myself. Of course, my ability to do that came from a place of extraordinary privilege, but it was a place it had taken me 25 years to earn.
I regret few things in my life, but I should have directed sooner. When I think about how challenging it was for me, after a lot of success in the business, to stick my hand up, I think, how hard it is when you feel like you’re too young or too female or too quiet or too non-white-guy or too lacking a college education or film degree, whatever is preventing others from seeing you as a director.
In the tweet, when I say, “Men ask,” I’m painting with a crude brush. A finer point on it would be to say: There are people who feel entitled to do the job of directing because of their background or education or position in the socioeconomic hierarchy or because their parents put all their fingerpainting up on the fridge. And so they ask.
And you gotta ask.
You might have to mention your dream to people for years. The first people you tell may not hire you. Of the people who have asked to direct on our show for the first time, we’ve been able to hire a few, by no means all — there are so many things that go into those decisions.
But once you say it, people will know this fact about you: You are an aspiring director. It will adhere to you like an invisible, metaphorical baseball hat and cargo pants. They’ll tell people, “Yeah, I think she does want to direct.” They might invite you to shadow. They might recommend you to people looking for a director for their web series. They might read the script for the short film you want to shoot.
And when the world gives you the High School Boyfriend Scorn Face, and it will — oh Lord, it will — you will persist. You will know that directors don’t come in one shape, size, gender, orientation, ethnicity, age. You will know that a dream needs to be named before it can become a reality. You will ask and ask and treasure the nos as much as the yeses, because they will build your resolve. You will know it’s never too late. And you. Will. Ask.
A version of this story first appeared in the 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.